From the Powells who fought in the Revolutionary War to my great uncle who fought in the Civil War, my family has a rich military history. My uncle Jack found himself behind enemy lines during the Battle of the Bulge and was the only man in his company to survive. Another Uncle injured his back carrying a trunk filled with Hitler's secrets. One of my uncles nearly froze to death in Korea, and another worked for Naval Intelligence during the Cold War and Vietnam. His son, a Cobra helicopter squadron commander, was killed in the first Gulf War.
And I ... well, I fought a different kind of war. As a soldier in President Reagan's war on drugs, I worked undercover against organized drug trafficking.
As a family, our service to our nation has been costly. We've paid for freedom with our lives, an odd assortment of body parts - physical injuries that have lasted a lifetime - and the emotional pain and guilt associated with the actions we were often forced to take as a result of our sworn duty to God and country.
So, last January, when my son told me he wanted to join the Navy and serve as a combat hospital corpsman, I wasn't totally surprised. I don't know exactly what influenced him to make that choice, but whatever the reason, I never felt I had a right to quiz him. No one ever asked me that question, and to my knowledge, no ever asked any of my other family members. We simply felt the call to duty ... and we served. We paid the price, one family member at a time.
When Charles and I went to meet with the Navy recruiter, I fully expected that before we left the room I would be conned into signing over the house and my Chevy Tahoe. Everyone expects that from a military recruiter. Instead, I met a man of integrity who acted with honesty and professionalism over the months that Charles had to wait before his report date.
I'll never forget the day Charles came home from his pre-basic training classes and handed me a new Navy cap. "The chief petty officer sent this to you," he said. I liked the cap, donned it immediately, and wore it for a day. Eventually, however, it seemed to squeeze my brain with the realization that my son would be gone soon and would never return ... at least not the same as he had left.
As time passed, Charles spent his free time working out, preparing physically for basic training. Then, one day I came home from an extended business trip, hugged him tightly, and nearly gasped. He no longer felt like the gangly young man I had left behind. I was hugging a man.
The day I took Charles to catch his flight to the Great Lakes Training Center near Chicago, Illinois, I knew I had about 45 minutes left with him before our lives would be changed forever. Forty-five minutes and one last chance to impart something good and lasting from his witness of a lifetime of good and bad choices I had made. Forty-five minutes to help him make choices he wouldn't regret. Forty-five minutes to impart wisdom that might last a lifetime.
I didn't think about the fact that he wouldn't be seated at the table on Thanksgiving. I didn't consider the reality of not having him there for the Christmas gift exchange. At that moment, I didn't realize that I would be sharing football games with my daughter on New Year's Day and not my son.
Instead, I spoke these words to him: "Son, I have had many dangerous jobs and have been in numerous fire fights, drug deals and arrests. There have been times when I wondered what I would say to you and your sister if I didn't have much time left to talk. Now that I'm in that moment, I realize that if I haven't already said it to you by now, it's probably too late."
I couldn't encourage him to be a good Christian man. He had made that choice long ago. I couldn't encourage him to be selfless toward others. He demonstrated that trait when he signed up to be a combat medic. I couldn't ask him to become any good thing he hadn't already become.
In that moment, I knew my reward wasn't a ball cap. My gift was the man my son had become. When my wife and I returned to the parking lot, I read aloud the bumper sticker on my car: "Proud Parent of a Sailor." I smiled and knew it was true.
Charles J. Powell Sr. is a behavioral scientist graduate from Trevecca Nazarene University and he appears on television and at conferences speaking on such topics as the transitions in life, issues facing the contemporary church and its leaders, and the topic of terrorism. Powell is an ordained minister, a published author and serves as the director of marketing for LifeSprings Resources in Franklin Springs, Georgia. Charles J. Powell II has completed corpsman school and is currently in Field Medical Service School in the United States Navy.